Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

Free Our Data mentioned in Parliament. It’s a start…

We’re gradually trying to get the Free Our Data campaign moved up the agenda: ministerial meetings, civil servants, European comparisons.

But we have to thank Mark Todd MP (see right) for at last mentioning the campaign in the House of Commons, during an adjournment debate on Monday night on the topic of “Public Information (Commercial Use)“.

Even if it was only to dismiss our precept… he said:

I should like briefly to comment on the free our data campaign [our emphasis], which has suggested that the correct path is to distribute Government data virtually for free, or at cost. The difficulty of that model, which relies on the argument that that would generate substantial economic growth and tax revenues that would easily repay the amount lost in revenues directly associated with the sales, is that I am afraid it places a substantial reliance on any Government—not just this one—to continue to fund the development and maintenance of the quality of data in those organisations. At the moment, the organisations have revenue streams on which they can rely to invest into the future. Simply relying on the Treasury to bury its hand into its pocket periodically to develop data into the future is wishful thinking. That is not the path down which we should be treading.

He makes a good point, but then, the Office of National Statistics faces much the same problem. Somehow that can be relied on to be independent

It is well worth reading the debate, even though the only participants (perhaps the only people who were present?) appear to be Mr Todd and Gareth Thomas, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for International Development. As Mr Todd notes, it’s shaming enough that in trying to get a government minister to respond to PSI questions, nobody seems to be in charge:

One of the difficulties is that a variety of Departments have a role to play; there is no clear, coherent leadership, as was evidenced in the preparations for responding to this debate. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has been passed the parcel of answering at 10.15 or thereabouts, but to be honest the task could have gone to a number of other Ministers. Indeed, I was asked which Minister I thought it appropriate should answer the debate. There is a lack of clarity at that level that needs to be resolved.

His cause is to point out that there’s enormous value locked up in public sector information which ought to be made more visible. We agree; we only differ about the charging methodology.

Then again, the answer from Gareth Thomas does contain something that we find less encouraging:

Given that the trading fund model is well established, the Government believe that we should take the time to look at the issues in some detail. We must ensure that high-quality data continue to be produced, and public sector tasks fulfilled, at the same time as opportunities for the wider economy are maximised. It would be entirely premature to abandon what has been a high-quality data production model without fully exploring the consequences. As my hon. Friend said, the UK has world-class agencies, including Ordnance Survey, the Met Office, the UK Hydrographic Office and the Land Registry. I shall take this opportunity on behalf of the Government to pay tribute to the professionalism, expertise and talent that is housed in each of those offices. We should be careful to avoid destabilising those excellent agencies.

Yes, but we’d hate to think he’s prejudging the outcome of the trading funds study, which will report on November 22.

(Mr Todd’s interest stems from the fact that before becoming an MP he worked for Pearson, and considered or may have set up companies which would have used data – some of it sourced from the public sector. As he says on his biography,

I spent 20 years in the publishing industry starting as an editor of school history books and leaving when I was running the warehouse, customer service and information systems of the UK business of Addison Wesley Longman. Through most of my business career my task was the transformation of previously unprofitable businesses or service functions which were too costly and failing to deliver.

Nice use of Google Maps on his site, by the way… the only pity is that he’s standing down at the next election. Then again, that could be some time away.)

Still, we’ll drop him a line to say thanks. And point out the ONS…

And an extra note for Steve Feldman: we didn’t lobby him..

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